Protecting the Ocean for Future Memories
By Maria João Cruz
Conservation Project Manager, Oceano Azul Foundation
“My relationship with the ocean started at a very young age when my father handed me a pair of goggles and flippers to go snorkeling. When I was 15, he enrolled me in a diving course. My hometown was near an estuary, so I grew up with a close proximity to the water.
When I moved to the Azores in 2006, my relationship with the ocean grew even stronger. The Azores is home to some of the most unique and pristine marine environments in the world. I remember diving in the Azores for the very first time. The water was so clear that I felt like I was in a big swimming pool with so many creatures to learn about.
My fascination with sea creatures led me to pursue a career in marine biology and conduct scientific research related to cetaceans. I recall one instance when I was out on the water with my team. We grew tired and discouraged as the day wore on since we had only tagged one whale. At the very end of the day, a blue whale came out from under the front of our boat and out of the water. I felt the water hit me as the whale went back into the water. I was completely speechless.
The ocean is certainly awe-inspiring, but moments like these are becoming less common. Living in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Azoreans have a very close relationship to the ocean. Many islanders own small boats and go out to fish in order to feed their families. People are proud that Azorean fish are some of the best fish in the world, but we have been exploiting our ocean resources at a rate much faster than can be replenished. If we want to remain among the best, the fish need to still exist. Every year, new studies show a steady decline in fish and marine resources.
Fisheries and tourism are two of the biggest sectors in our economy that Azoreans rely on for livelihoods and economic security, but these sectors took a huge hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. International fish markets closed. Tourism stopped when people stayed home. But when human activity on the water was limited, we were able to see the ocean giving signs of recovery.
Since the Azores is located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, we have migratory species travel past our islands every year. This past year, many species were more frequently sighted than in previous years. We saw how marine life can thrive when humans give the ocean a break. When the world slowed down, people began to develop a greater appreciation for nature.
The future of Azorean ocean protection
If we want to be successful in protecting our ocean, we need to engage our youth. In recent years, people have been using the ocean in a very extractive manner. We need to teach our future generations a different, more sustainable approach to ocean use. As a mother of two young children, I think about how I want to teach them about the ocean’s value. Access to education will create more opportunities for our future generations. One of the main focuses of the Blue Azores program is to create a blue literacy program for schools and the community to learn about science and conservation. When the community learns about all of the opportunities the ocean can provide, they will be more encouraged to protect it.
There is a growing environmental movement in the Azores. Different organizations are organizing beach cleanups. The Regional Government of the Azores has entered into a partnership with the Oceano Azul Foundation and the Waitt Institute to protect 15% of the Azorean sea through the Blue Azores program. This program is looking at ways to build a Blue Economy to use our ocean resources in a more sustainable manner. A strong and diverse Blue Economy means more jobs and opportunities for Azoreans. I want my children to create their own ocean memories too, but they won’t get the chance if we don’t work to protect it now while we still have a chance.”
Maria João Cruz is a Conservation Project Manager at the Oceano Azul Foundation responsible for the Blue Azores Program, focused on protecting, promoting and valuing the Blue Natural Capital of the Azores archipelago. With a PhD in Marine Sciences, she has been living in the Azores since 2006 and worked at the University of the Azores conducting scientific research related to the study of cetaceans interactions with fisheries. She is based on São Miguel Island.